If you’ve read my work or followed me on Twitter for very long, you know that I love scouting offensive and defensive line play, and one of the few voices in the field that I trust more than even my own is that of The Scouting Academy’s Brandon Thorn. Thorn, who also writes for Establish The Run and hosts the Trench Warfare podcast, devours offensive line tape at a ridiculous rate, scouting the majority of the league each offseason and then ranking players in tiers based on their most recent tape.
Recently Thorn tweeted out his rankings of the expected 2020 offensive line starters at each of the five positions, including expected Bucs starters Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa. Tristan Wirfs wasn’t included due to the fact that he has yet to take an NFL snap.
Here are Thorn’s criteria for placing players into certain tiers:
Tier 1: Elite
Tier 2: Very good
Tier 3: Good/above average
Tier 4: Solid/average
Tier 5: Adequate
Tier 6: Marginal
Of the four Bucs’ starters Thorn did evaluate, here is how he tiered them heading into 2020 training camp. Make sure you follow Brandon on Twitter!
LT Donovan Smith: Tier 5 – Adequate Starter
I fully believe that Smith played his best football last season, and I would probably slide him up into Tier 4 as a result. However there are still ugly lapses for Smith, sometimes in key moments, that remain frustrating in his evaluation.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Pro Football Focus charged him with allowing five sacks and 34 pressures in what was by far Smith’s best graded season for the site. 10 of those pressures came in an ugly first two weeks of the year; after that Smith was a much stronger player the rest of the season. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever find high level consistency in his play, but I think his ceiling is in line with the Chiefs’ Eric Fisher as a starter you can win with in pass protection. Smith’s run blocking still leaves a lot to be desired heading into year six.
LG Ali Marpet: Tier 2 – Very Good Starter
Thorn listed just two left guards above Marpet: Quenton Nelson and Richie Incognito. With Incognito set to fall off at 37 years old, Marpet is set to battle it out for the LG2 spot with tier-mates Thuney, Joel Bitonio and Rodger Saffold. Thorn highlighted his love for Marpet’s game in a Bucs Briefing column a few months ago. Marpet has been a Tier 2 guard for Thorn each of the past two offseasons.
Marpet is one of the most consistent and balanced offensive linemen in all of football, playing at a high level in the run and pass game. He should be slated for a great season as his comfortability level grows playing next to Jensen.
C Ryan Jensen: Tier 2 – Very Good Starter
2019 was a huge year for Jensen, who solidified the Bucs’ decision to sign him as a free agent two years ago with a dominant campaign last season. The veteran center jumped from a Tier 3 player for Thorn to a Tier 2, largely due to having perhaps the best season of any center in the NFL last year.
Bucs C Ryan Jensen – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Raiders’ Rodney Hudson, Eagles’ Jason Kelce and Falcons’ Alex Mack are the only players ranked ahead of Jensen, all in Tier 1. With all three of those centers 31 or older, Jensen could be poised to assume the league’s top spot if he continues to play as he did last season. He’s currently battling in Tier 2 with Maurkice Pouncey, Ryan Kelly, Mitch Morse and Frank Ragnow.
RG Alex Cappa: Tier 4 – Solid/Average Starter
Many are probably surprised to see Cappa a tier above Smith, and I admit I wasn’t expecting that. This is probably the right tier for Cappa based on the games I studied last season, and I know Thorn was impressed with the Humboldt State product’s development in 2019.
“My thinking for the Bucs OL rankings on (Donovan) Smith was that even though last year was probably his best season, I’d need to see it for at least another half a season before solidifying his spot in Tier 4,” Thorn said. “Also having the last 3-4 seasons as a Tier 5 guy made it easier to keep him there all things considered. Cappa’s Tier 4 spot is based on his age and that I think he’s ascending. So I am projecting a bit there, but I think reasonably so.”
Cappa going from Tier 6 to Tier 4 in Thorn’s eyes is a big move. Even if he can settle in and consistently play a Tier 4 level, that would be huge for the Bucs’ offense. If Cappa can elevate his play to a Tier 3 right guard, Tampa Bay’s interior offensive line would be among the top two or three in the entire NFL. That would also be familiar territory for Brady, who consistently enjoyed great interior offensive lines in New England, most recently the trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason.